The apostrophe: it’s its own worst enemy

by Craig Wilson

Purloined from the French, reviled by databases, and cause for endless anxiety among school-going children, university students and, frankly, anyone else who puts pen to paper or finger to keyboard, the apostrophe is almost certainly loathed far more than it’s loved.

So perturbed was I by what I deemed apostrophe misuse that, armed with a permanent marker and a bicycle last week I amended a roadside memorial in Johannesburg that’s infuriated me for years. Instead of suggesting the memorial commemorated “Stef”, it read as though it belonged to a group of “Stefs”.

Stef's Circle

The memorial was put up in memory of 18-year-old Stef Radel who died in a car accident in 2007 after a traffic circle was built but left insufficiently marked its first weekend. I took its lack of apostrophe as an affront against the memory of the memorialised. At least, that’s what I told myself. Upon reflection – and given that no one else has taken the trouble to insert the missing apostrophe before me – I think I was most enamoured with the notion of being the person who “fixed” the sign. I used to think using apostrophes properly – or if you prefer, not misusing them – was important. I’m not so sure anymore.

Originally used to denote omission/elision/contraction, as in “can’t” or “’em” or “l’enfant”, the apostrophe then came to include possession, as in “Craig’s (former) apostrophe fixation”, and finally found its only truly useful role as a denoter of plural possession, as in “Workers’ day”. However, thanks to the proliferation of solecistic signage, rampant misuse by fashion and film buffs when referring to particular decades, and the efforts of the Domestic Names Committee of the US Board on Geographic Names the apostrophe continues to fall out of favour.

Most of the confusion surrounding the apostrophe stems from the word “its”. Endowed with an apostrophe when a contraction of “it is” but not when possessive (in the same way “yours”, “ours”, “theirs” and other possessive pronouns also go apostrophe-free) “its” is the most annoying use of the punctuation mark.

Though text messaging often takes the blame for hastening the apostrophe’s decline it’s the Internet that’s really to blame. See, the Internet’s addresses – uniform resource locators (URLs) to the fastidious among us – can’t accommodate apostrophes, despite there being no such obstacle to including slashes or colons. Apostrophes aren’t welcome in e-mail addresses, or the hashtags Twitter initiated (and countless others have mimicked), either. And electronic forms often reject them, too. Given the potential for snags it’s little wonder brands are doing away with apostrophes, much like they’ve removed spaces between words.

Waterstones, the British book retailer, scandalously did away with its denoter of possession altogether last year to make its name “more versatile and practical”. And if a bookstore deems the apostrophe redundant, well, what hope is there for the hobbyist lobbyist?

Two weeks ago I was of the view that apostrophes matter. Not only to grammar sticklers, but in the sense that they’re an essential part of a writer’s repertoire. Today, I’m less convinced. Aside from their use to denote plural possession I fear apostrophes cause more harm than they do good.

In most instances context provides sufficient clarity. Sure, “won’t” and “wont” mean very different things, just as “we’ll” and “well” do, but they’re words that infrequently stand alone, and thus are seldom likely to be open to ambiguous interpretation.

The same can’t be said of place names, necessarily. Apostrophes in place names have historical value, and do have the potential to prevent confusion. Consider, for a moment, a collection of valleys named after a family named Hill. Do we really want to settle for “Hills valleys” on official maps?

On balance, however, the apostrophe is a shibboleth, heavy with elitism. Helpful or not it’s divisive – separating the high-born, or well-read, or pedants, or professionals from… the rest. Like it or not the rest are writers, too. Whether it’s a shopping list or curriculum vitae, few of us go through our lives writing nothing at all, and shouldn’t that be reason enough to make things as simple as possible?

In this light it seems absurd that one, small character, little more than a jumped-up comma, continues to be allowed to tax the eyes and command the time of editors and proofreaders, all the while vexing and frustrating aspirants.

Perhaps the propensity for misuse the apostrophe faces is the best reason for retiring it. Or perhaps its potential for disambiguation gives it lasting value. I think the sensible stance is a non-committal one: those who want to use it should, but I’ll no longer chastise those who don’t.

There’s no pride in ignorance, but there’s also no pride in taking joy in the ignorance of others.

The future could’ve been a place where the apostrophe was revered and respected and appropriately deployed. It could’ve been a place where heritage site names made sense and a cheeky double contraction wouldn’t seem unusual. That future’s looking unlikely. It’s a pity, because I’d’ve loved it. But thisll do, too.




Craig Wilson is a reader, writer, picture taker, speaker, ukulele strummer, cat stroker, food cooker, whisk(e)y drinker, music mythologiser, book hoarder, takumar collector and recovering philosopher.


2 Responses to “The apostrophe: it’s its own worst enemy”

  1. a beautifully written piece – well done! No, hang in there….thisll not do! This’ll do!

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